Hoagy Carmichael, HONG KONG BLUES (1939)

The killer words ‘Tin Pan Alley’ frequently appear in  accounts of Hoagy Carmichael’s career. That seems to me inaccurate. He was in many ways one of the first authentic singer-songwriters.

Whereas the often brilliant Tin Pan Alley composers were writing songs for a market – they could be sung by anyone –  Carmichael had a distinctive character, voice and style, which were expressed in the way he wrote and performed.

It felt personal.

Elsewhere in the wood,  Woody Guthrie, Jimmy Rodgers, Robert Johnson, Blind Willie McTell and others were writing their songs, but it was Carmichael who took the first steps on a road that led to Randy Newman, Paul McCartney, Carole King and Ben Folds.

For me, he is the complete package as a songwriter. His melodies are extraordinary (‘Star Dust’, ‘My Resistance Is Low, ‘Georgia On My Mind’), he had a wide range of influences and styles. He could be funny  (‘Don’t Forget To Say No, Baby’), and conveyed warmth and wit in his song. When he sings, his timing on songs like ‘Riverboat Shuffle’ or ‘Old Man Harlem’ is exquisite.

He had the surprisingly elusive quality of charm.

Hoagy Carmichael qualified as a lawyer but gave up all that nonsense soon after teaming up with Bix Beiderbecke  in the mid-1920s. Although many of the best lyricists of the first half of the 20th century worked with him – including Mitchell Parish, Frank Loesser (Guys and Dolls) and Johnny Mercer  – I particularly like the songs where he wrote both songs and words.

This week’s Friday Song ‘Hong Kong Blues’ is not only musically inspired but is also a master-class in lyric-writing. It must be admitted that, in terms of political incorrectness,  it pretty much covers the waterfront.

‘It’s the story of a very unfortunate coloured man…’

The line was changed many times over the years  – ‘Memphis Man’, ‘African man’, ‘unfortunate man’  – but subsequent versions always sound awkward to me. Then there’s highly dubious cultural appropriation in the very funny parody of Chinese music (later cribbed by Randy Newman in the equally dodgy ‘Yellow Man’), references to opium.  Just to put the cap on it, Carmichael sometimes put on a Chinese accent when singing as he does towards the end of a version filmed in 1957.

But I am going to assume we are all grown-up enough to remember that it was written and performed at a time before such things were found offensive.

Often in funny songs, the verbal wit tends to distract from the melody. Here the joke in the music is perfectly in balance with the eye-wateringly clever lyrics, which land with a syllable on each note – with no cheating (elided syllables, words swallowed etc).

‘It’s the story of a very unfortunate coloured man
Who got ‘rested down in old Hong Kong
He got twenty years privilege taken away from him
When he kicked old Buddha’s gong.

And now he’s poppin’ the piano just to raise the price
Of a ticket to the land of the free
Well, he says his home’s in Frisco where they send the rice
But it’s really in Tennessee.’

I love the way the tune develops with the story, with some clever lines and rhymes when you least expect them.

‘Won’t somebody believe
I’ve a yen to see that Bay again
Every time I try to leave
Sweet opium won’t let me fly away.’

‘Hong Kong Blues’ was in the 1944 film ‘To Have and Have Not’ and, like many great songs, has been subjected to endless cover versions, most of which remind one how good the original is. On YouTube, you can find Jerry Lee Lewis rocking itGeorge Harrison Beatling it , Ramblin’ Jack Elliott country-bluesing it, and Martin Carthy and Dave Swarbrick folking it – folking it comprehensively, some might say. There’s even a punk version, which should probably not detain us too long.

Almost the only version  of the song which captures its spirit and musical zest is Jeff Healey’s although I rather liked this cover, with a xylophone by Haruomi Hosono and his band Tin Pan Alley.

Hoagy Carmichael made a number of recordings of the song down the years, with varying tempos and arrangements. Personally I like the slow early version, with a simple backing, and the 1957 film has a woozy charm.

In the end, though, there’s only one clip that can be shown. Here’s Hoagy as Cricket, with a guest appearance from Humphrey Bogart, in To Have and Have Not: